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Ukraine and the Emergence of a New World Order: An American Perspective

Interview with Frank Gavin

Ukraine and the Emergence of a New World Order: An American Perspective
 Francis J. Gavin
Professor and Inaugural Director of the Henry Kissinger Center at Johns Hopkins SAIS

The Ukraine war upended the current world order, propelling the return of traditional geopolitical rivalries to the fore and making it more difficult to respond to global challenges. Frank Gavin, Professor and Inaugural Director of the Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at John Hopkins University, examines the consequences of this new order on transnational alliances, nuclear proliferation, Russian isolation, and the way in which the Global South is omitted from the equation. 

In your June piece for Foreign Affairs magazine, you argue that Ukraine, like other crises, reveals major actors' weaknesses and strengths. How should Ukraine prompt the United States to renew its China position?

Commenting on Secretary Blinken's speech on the People's Republic of China, some observers assumed Russia's invasion of Ukraine went hand in hand with China's strategy. This is more than unlikely. China has a far more sophisticated understanding of the geopolitical spectrum and knows that being overly connected with Russia's brutal and incompetent invasion is not in its best interest.  The spiraling nature of the China-US relationship over the past two years is also very worrisome, and China has acted contrary to its own sake. Figuring out how to behave when friends or foe feel trapped and act against their own interests is particularly complex, and requires an extremely delicate work of diplomacy on behalf of the US. 

We can be reminded of Kennedy’s televised speech in June 1963, following the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Soviets' test of power. Kennedy could have further humiliated the Soviet Union at this moment but decided instead to reach out, recognizing it as a geopolitical power whose interests were not going away. This was a riskier move with no success guarantees, but Kennedy understood that the Soviet Union was not going away. Both sides had a mutual responsibility to avoid the war, the US had to reach out to the USSR in order to de-escalate. Similarly, China today cannot be pleased with its connection with Russia. Clever and sophisticated diplomacy on part of the US would therefore involve making clear that Washington is not interested in humiliating China. Such an approach could ultimately open a lane for discussion. 

The US and the West responded in a far more vigorous way than expected and Russia has been seriously weakened by that backlash. Despite the Western tendency to bemoan our weaknesses and disagreement, this crisis revealed that we have a much better hand play. That alone should encourage us to make moves toward China, divert from the collision course we are on right now and avoid the much greater catastrophe of a US-China war. This crisis might come sooner than we had hoped, especially after the backlash Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi received for her end-of-July visit to Taiwan.

What are the new challenges of this world order and how do you assess the Global South’s role? 

We expect new transnational challenges (i.e. climate, public health, misinformation and migration) to divert from issues of great power politics, invasion and conquest, which forged the world order of the late 19th and 20th centuries. As anachronistic as they might seem, however, traditional geopolitical rivalries are actually back in the forefront, whether in Ukraine or in Taiwan and are intensifying the actual challenges that we should devote all our attention to. Although the world was able to rally (correctly and impressively) around Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine, it is disappointing to see how we have remained unable to cooperate on the Covid-19 crisis or the climate emergency.

Traditional geopolitical rivalries are actually back in the forefront, whether in Ukraine or in Taiwan and are intensifying the actual challenges that we should devote all our attention to.

On those challenges, the Global South is of fundamental importance. People living in these regions of the world are those who will likely suffer the most, as the largest bulk of the population growth is expected to come from sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Southern Asia. The Global South is no longer considered a traditional arena of geopolitical competition, as it used to be over the course of the past century. First, because those geopolitical rivalries are missing the big picture of the new world order at stake. Second, competition in those areas seems to be more of a burden rather than a plus. On that matter, China's Belt and Road Initiative has for instance been close to a failure.

The Global South hence matters due to demographic concerns, and the fact that it will bear the brunt of future challenges. But unlike dominating previous centuries, it will no longer be the focus of geopolitical competition 

Concerning the nuclear dimension and its deterrence, there are competing views in Europe. Putin's strategic signal is very worrisome. Russia set up missiles right on the site of the biggest nuclear installations in Europe. To what extent nuclear deterrence is a key factor in the crisis that we are witnessing? 

The challenge, when thinking about nuclear politics, is that it consists essentially in history that has not happened and retains some gray areas. Why has there not been any thermonuclear war? Why are there only nine nuclear weapon states, when in the 1960s, we could have expected more? It is a field where people understandably make strong assertions but we do not have all the answers.

The fact that this weapon remains in the hands of the head of the state makes it so special. This explains why it was so alarming when Trump became president (as the US nuclear authorization gives sole authority to the president to order the release of nuclear weapons). We have to take the nuclear question extremely seriously; because this weapon would be of extraordinary consequence, and we ignore what Putin is thinking. The situation is all the more complex since he has every interest in maintaining this unpredictability and sticking to this kind of "madman" strategy. Given the nuclear component, however, both NATO and Russia are deterred from escalating. It is surprising to see how limited the escalation has been so far, and how Putin "self-restricted" himself in a way.

However, what would have been NATO's reaction, if Moscow had hit supply depots in Poland for instance? Most likely, it would not have done anything more than giving Russia a warning, which triggers two issues. First, on February 25th, although the fear of nuclear use was at its highest, it faded away pretty quickly in the weeks that followed. There is a danger in minimizing the risk lurking at us. 

Second, the climax of a crisis should typically signal how far both sides are willing to go. But in that case, however, mistrust and lack of communication have impeded clarifying each stakeholder's position in the conflict. It remains unclear at what point Putin would actually be willing to escalate. Therefore, nuclear weapons may not be stabilizing. While some argue that nuclear power induces cautiousness, it can also lead one side to take its adversary's cautiousness for granted, by relieving him from the fear of retaliation. If Russia assumes that NATO will choose cautiousness above all and refrain from using nuclear weapons at any stake, it may leave room for Putin to use that margin and run risks on the field. 

If Russia assumes that NATO will choose cautiousness above all and refrain from using nuclear weapons at any stake, it may leave room for Putin to use that margin and run risks on the field. 

Moreover, the credibility of the US nuclear umbrella is also to be put into perspective. In the scenario of a Russian invasion of Estonia, it is crystal clear that Estonian territory, given its geography (Estonia being an open plain) cannot be defended only using conventional weapons. A response from Washington involving nuclear strikes is however unthinkable. President Macron may have gone too far with his "brain-dead" NATO comments, but he has a point. Although very dissuasive in the 1960s, the nuclear umbrella is no longer as strong of a deterrent as it used to be. Wars are dynamics and given the uncertainty of those times, it would not be unimaginable to see the Russian regime unfold and fall apart. In that case, the availability of nuclear weapons can turn out to be extremely dangerous, especially if Putin feels cornered or desperate. 

Would you say that NATO needs to rethink its posture and try to find new avenues and solutions? 

Several scenarios would put a lot of pressure on NATO, in case of a Russian attack on supply depots in Poland as we mentioned, or a move against Estonia for instance. During the Cold War era, NATO's military strategy (whether credible or not) was very explicit. If the Soviets had crossed the Franco-German border, the war plan was to escalate and even to strike nuclear first. This time however NATO's reaction in such a scenario is unclear, if not undefined. After the 1990s, as NATO was becoming more of a political organization, it lacked serious considerations for military contingencies. 

Sticking to this delicate issue, what we call "aggressive sanctuarization" has failed to some extent. The West is not in direct confrontation with Russia but Putin could not have anticipated this large support of Ukraine. Deterrence somewhat failed from a Russian standpoint and Russia could become more aggressive. In that scenario, Moscow could argue that it is simply playing by the Western rules, which should not trigger a strong reaction on our part. How should the West respond?

It is important to keep in mind that we were trying to deter Putin's invasion and that our deterrence failed as well. But at the heart of this lies a very difficult question: how to deal with the "Russia problem" ? President Macron, on one hand, is right in arguing that in the 21st century, Russia has some vested interest in a common European home. On the other hand, however, Putin's regime remains a criminal one, unlike Xi Jipping's regime, which is legitimate and effective (although its puzzling grand strategy conflicts with Western values). 

Even reaching a military combination, isolating and sanctioning Russia permanently will not work in the long run.

So what is the endgame with Moscow? This country extends over 11 different time zones, it is not going to disappear and it is neither going to break into a bunch of federations. This is why the criticism that Macron received was unfair. Even reaching a military combination, isolating and sanctioning Russia permanently will not work in the long run. At a certain point, we need to define an attitude, a philosophy toward Moscow, and the shape of its relationship with the rest of Europe. 

There cannot be either a stable Europe or a steady international system without defining this understanding but we have evidence to know Putin's Russia is not interested in cooperation. 

If we look back at Putin's address at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 we will see various attempts to engage Russia. At that time, the Bush administration tried to engage very hard with Putin, but despite discussions of strategic defense partnerships, talks did not materialize. Angela Merkel's attempt to work with Putin was not a success either. She suffered quite a historical collapse in global reputation doing so. The Biden administration came in with the right idea, pushing the Russian issue on the side. In the end, however, as Russia felt it was being ignored, it created a crisis. I am very torn here because you cannot have a stable world order by excluding such a geopolitical player… Similar attempts were seen with Iran or Cuba but it is just brushing the problem. So what do you do when your counterpart will not cooperate? I do not have an answer here.

This situation is not optimistic for non-proliferation. It is indeed new evidence that we are better off with nuclear weapons. Historians of the future will make the linkage with our failure to find a deal with Iran. Do you share this opinion and did Ukraine accelerate nuclear proliferation?

Nuclear nonproliferation has been one of the great successes of Western and US policy over the last half-century. If you look at the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, the fact that the number of nuclear states remains in the single digit is an extraordinary accomplishment. A world involving a nuclear Sweden, Turkey, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea is a scenario that of course, the US should want to avoid. But China and Russia should want to prevent it even more since a Eurasian issue would even be a bigger challenge for them. The US grand strategy has been a purist non-proliferation policy but it is perhaps time to put an end to it. It is understandable for states threatened by China or Russia to think of nuclear deterrence in order to guarantee their own security. China and Russia would also see nuclear proliferation as the consequence of the aggressivity of their foreign policy, especially regionally speaking.

Regarding Iran, non-proliferation is definitely the most desirable option. The Trump administration was wrong to pull out of the JCPOA but we should not be willing to go to war with Iran in order to guarantee it. Moreover, the Middle East is a region that Obama was correct to try to shift out of.

Regarding Iran, non-proliferation is definitely the most desirable option.

US leaving has generated positive effects like the 2020 Abraham Accords, which four Arab countries have so far joined. As the Saudis, the Israelis and the Emiratis were no longer worried about the US bailing them out, they showed more willingness to work together. The 2008 Bucharest Summit did not guarantee real security for Ukraine. Kyiv signed it from a position of desperation, given the pressure from the US and Russia, and also because of the amount of money involved. 

Two years ago, an interesting poll was conducted in Germany, by the Munich Security Report on German Foreign and Security Policy. It revealed that the kind of nuclear reassurance strategy some states pursue under the nuclear umbrella was not what German citizens were looking for. And indeed, given the incredibility of the US use of nuclear weapons, we can expect an increase in conventional and non-kinetic capabilities. The best place is actually to be "almost nuclear", as Japan for instance. Japan is in a position to negotiate, which is no longer possible once you have actually crossed the line and have become a nuclear power, in the case of India. Nevertheless, an escalation in Taiwan could lead to a discussion about nuclear proliferation in Japan. Therefore, lessons are mixed. To balance what was said before, NATO's deterrence was also reinforced by its vigorous reaction and the fact that Russia, although playing with fire, has not dared to directly attack the transatlantic alliance so far.

Do you analyze the "new world order" in terms of different theaters that we could approach separately? How do you see the equation changing between Europe, the US and China? 

On top of the transatlantic relationship, the European project is one of the most remarkable historical developments. The crisis has highlighted the strength of the transatlantic relationship. The US-EU bonds are closer than ever. We should neither lose sight of that nor take that foundation for granted. What we should worry about is the turn that the US-China relationship could take. If the two most powerful countries are neither speaking nor coordinating, it could lead to a dangerous escalation. This is why China's decision to halt climate change discussions with the US over Taiwan was so worrying. Additionally, cooperation on returning illegal immigrants, criminal investigations, transnational crime, and illegal drugs has been temporarily suspended. Global challenges cannot be addressed without a relationship between Beijing and Washington.

The challenges involved in the New world order we are observing require a greater deal of creativity and coordination. 

After World War two, the effective world order was dealing with three major issues: first, the great depression. Second, global wars and conquests. And third, imperialism and nationalism. As we said before, the challenges involved in the New world order we are observing require a greater deal of creativity and coordination. We need to find a way to put those geopolitical questions at rest in order to work on those issues.

There are new avenues that the EU could work on with China. We mentioned climate but disinformation could also be on the agenda. Contrary to what we tend to think, China does not have an interest in letting disinformation run rampant.

Is the Biden administration right to send new American troops to Europe?

In a time of uncertainty, we should keep our friends close. The transatlantic relationship is precisely the one bond that is doing well. It is therefore crucial to preserve it. It is also a sign to Russia that invading a sovereign state comes at a cost and that the transatlantic relationship, despite some disagreements, will not be divided. On the whole, it would be good to see Macron’s vision of European strategic autonomy built upon. Perhaps this is a wake-up call, and it might create a real opportunity.  

You don't buy Eldridge Colby's argument that we should transfer all assets to the Indopacific?

I do not; there is a big issue in the Indopacific that could create a war and that could happen sooner than expected. If these issues come to a military resolution, we have all failed. If China sees that it could potentially lose Taiwan, they will no longer consider the military balance since this issue is of crucial importance to them. Nevertheless, we should not look at the problem exclusively from a military balance standpoint but from a political one. Rearming cannot be the only way to deal with rising tensions. If the military balance improves five years from now, it might give China an incentive to make a move sooner than expected.

Copyright: Olivier Matthys / POOL / AFP

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